© BM 2008
Chapter Sixteen – Episode 24
They dug in and consolidated at Teal Outlet, to the immense delight of the few Falklanders who lived in that bleak place. At the end of May, 42 Commando took a short hop by helicopter and landed, unopposed, on Mount Kent, to support the small detachment of SAS already dug in there.
The following day 5 Brigade landed at San Carlos Bay, and the Scots and Welsh Guards moved on to Bluff Cove on the eastern side of the island, and just to the south of Port Stanley. The noose was tightening around the Argentine forces in Port Stanley. The Guards were to the south, 3 Para to the north, and 2 Para and the Commandos closing in from the west. Offshore the Navy waited, ready to pound the Argentine positions with their heavy weaponry. Overhead the Sea Harriers maintained their combat air patrols. Not a single man believed, for a single second, that any other outcome but a British victory was possible. More and more British guns and equipment arrived from the ships in San Carlos Bay every day.
The enemy was surrounded, but was dug in strongly in the hills that spread around Stanley in a ring from north to south, forming a saucer in which the little settlement crouched expectantly. The Argentines gave every indication that they intended to defend their ‘Malvinas’.
On the 8th June, the Sir Galahad and the Sir Tristram, lying off Fitzroy were attacked by the Argentine Air Force, the Sir Galahad sunk and some fifty Welsh Guardsmen killed, some horribly burned. All around the island the British heard this news and realised, again, that they were not involved in a game, but were truly fighting a war.
Alex did not think that he knew anyone on board either of the two troop carriers. The Guards regiments and the Parachute Regiment rarely came into contact; they were geographically and functionally far apart. It did not hurt in the same way that 2 Para’s losses at Goose Green had hit home, as each man in the third battalion had known someone who had died. But he knew what the dead Guardsmen had been like; pretty much like himself, and the Paras, and just about every other man in the British forces.
For the next three days they dug in, literally as well as metaphorically, into the cold wet hard earth of East Falkland. The snow continued to fall, coating man and landscape alike. The perimeter was pushed out and consolidated. Patrols were sent out, probing deeper and deeper into Argentine held territory, testing, teasing and trying to provoke the enemy into fighting. Sometimes they did, and a short sharp firefight ensued before the British close range artillery silenced the enemy. The occasional marble eyed sheep wandered by, and balefully regarded the intruders.
Alex, although on the Headquarters staff, talked his way onto one of these little ten men patrols, led by a young lieutenant, Ian Maxwell whom Alex had helped train about two years previously.
“Come to check up on me, sir?” Maxwell put the question half in jest and half out of concern, although he smiled as he asked it, to avoid the major taking any offence.
“I am forty four in three weeks, Lieutenant Maxwell, and I have been in the Army for twenty six years. I have never really been involved in a war. A bit of shooting here and there, and dodging Paddy, but never in a proper war. We are in one now, and I will not have an other chance. So, if it is all right with you, I want to grab my chance now?”
He slapped the younger man on the shoulder. “So, if you don’t mind, son, I’d appreciate it if you would let me come along with you. I promise that I will behave myself.”
Maxwell relaxed a little. “Pleased to have you along, sir. If you spot me going wrong, you will let me know?”
“You are the boss, Ian; I am a staff man, now.”
Off they trudged, trekking silently into the snow, like a platoon of ghosts. Alex, at the rear, weapon carried at the ready, thought about the conversation he had just had with Maxwell.
“God”, he reflected to himself, half in horror, “I called him ‘son’. What is he, twenty two, perhaps twenty three, only three years older than Richard? He could be my son.”
Several hours into the patrol on that raw biting night, they cam across three young Argentines, expendables, almost frozen to death in their foxholes. They were captured without a shot being fired, and were then taken back to the British positions, to be interrogated by Alex in Spanish. It was the one and only occasion in the Falklands that he used the language. Even at the time he thought to himself, “You got into the team on false pretences, my old mate!”
They were young, as young as Richard, badly dressed, badly supplied and badly frightened. They believed that the British would kill them. All three were conscripts from the north of Argentina, and had never in their short lives experienced anything like the weather conditions in the Falklands. They were astonished at the mutual respect and easy familiarity displayed between the officers and men in the Paras. They were even more surprised at a British major speaking to them in Spanish, even if it was the language of a modern European Spain, and not the evolved tongue of their native land.
Alex’s interrogation gave no strategic insights, but was useful from a tactical viewpoint. The three young conscripts had been plopped in their hole in their advanced position some three days earlier with three days rations. Their radios had failed the previous day, and they had not seen, or communicated with an officer or NCO during the time they had been there. Their orders had been to wait for the British to attack, and to kill as many of them as they could. They were a trip wire.
“I wonder if it will all be as easy as this?” Alex asked himself. He did not have very long to wait for an answer. At 2100 hours on 11th June 1982, the battle for Mount Longdon began. It was not as easy as capturing three frightened, frozen, disoriented boys.
The attack was preceded by a strength sapping, breath sucking march of four hours. Alex’s chest heaved, his breath rasping painfully in his throat, and he knew that if he could have looked in a mirror, his face would have been grey and drawn with effort, his eyes hooded, as he remembered his father’s eyes had been so long ago when Alex was a boy.
“Well, Dad, I wonder what you are doing now, and what you are thinking?”
He imagined his father reading his paper, or listening to the wireless. He had never got around to calling it a radio. He would be smoking his pipe, and falling asleep in front of a coal fire. Even in June, Alex imagined that there would be a coal fire.
“God, we could bloody well do with one here, mate,” he told himself. He did not know then just what coverage the war was receiving on television, and if he had known, he would have been distraught for the effect it might have on his mother and Kate.
He wondered if his father would reproach him for being involved in something he would regard as immoral. Many Irish people, and his own father was no exception, always reduced every issue to how it affected Ireland and the Catholic Church. That attitude went a long way towards explaining the position of the Irish Free State in regard to Germany between 1939 and 1945.
“My enemy’s enemy is my friend” he told himself. His father would see the war as a piece of British aggression against a smaller Catholic state, and there would no swaying him from that viewpoint.
“You never let the facts get in the way of a good argument, did you Dad?” He grinned in the darkness as he could imagine his father replying, his pipe used as a pointer for emphasis, “A bit like yourself, do you mean, son?”
His reverie was shattered by an explosion off to the left. He didn’t know what it was but it had sounded like a mine. They all hit the ground and covered their heads as a storm of Argentine fire followed the explosion.
Strategic ambitions were put aside as little groups of men on either side fought their own private battles, disputing every foxhole and trench. The fire from the enemy came in long bright tracers of death, over the heads of the British and crashing into the hillside all around them. The sky was momentarily lit up as day with flares and explosions and then the darkness descended for a few seconds. Alex scrabbled at the rocky ground to find a cover that wasn’t there. “Think, you bastard, think. Where are they firing from?” In the light, vivid images of men flickered across the consciousness like some long forgotten film of Flanders or the Somme. The noise was constant, the crackling barking and thunder of their own mortars, rockets and machine guns deafening the British.
The whole battalion was involved, headquarters staff, officers, everyone, all fighting for their lives and in a controlled fury. Alex had long wondered how he would react in this situation, whether he would be afraid, frightened of dying. He didn’t have the time. Men were hit, torn apart by firepower and mines, their limbs shattered. Some cried out in their pain and fear, others bit their lips and waited for the medics. Alex was no longer an individual, but a part of a bigger, greater whole, shooting, cursing, advancing a few feet and clinging to the ground.
The Colonel was up with his men, commanding, cajoling, encouraging, and shooting. The wounded were half carried, half dragged by crouching men, back to where two blood stained Army doctors fought savagely to save their lives. They succeeded with some, failed with others.
Cradled against a rock, Alex remembered the words, long forgotten until that moment, of a soldier in the English Civil War. ‘Lord, I have much to do this day; if I forget thee, do not thou forget me.’ Instinctively he made the sign of the cross, something he hadn’t done in a score of years. “Stupid bastard,” he snarled to himself as he heaved onto his feet again. “The bloody Argies are praying to the same God. He can’t watch all of us.”
Artillery support was called up, and the skill of the British gunners was such that they dropped their high explosives only yards in front of the Paras, showering them with earth and removing the little hearing they had remaining. Everyone kept on fighting in the snowy night, a vision of Dante’s Inferno flickering in front of their night sight glasses. They fought against a frequently unseen enemy, firing their weapons, throwing grenades, and gradually, slowly, winning little parcels of ground. The Argentine fire was continuous, heavy and deadly. These were not frightened boys, but brave determined soldiers, fighting well and disputing every yard of ground.
The first tentative shivers of light were beginning to streak the eastern sky when the enemy fire seemed to lessen, almost imperceptibly at first, but then more definitively, like a sudden drop in the noise hail makes before it abruptly ceases. The British fire increased, advancing was easier, gaining yards instead of feet, and then the bayonets were out, and the Argentines were running.
It was just after first light, and the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment was in control of Mount Longdon. There was no elation, no joy, no sense of victory, just profound relief that it was all over. A little later would come a desperate sadness at the loss of so many friends. But for now, it was done. That was the main thing, and there was a new dawn to savour.
They gathered up the remaining Argentines. There was no animosity. They had done their jobs, and done them well. They were comrades in arms, pitted against each other by decisions outside their control. They shared cigarettes and bottles of water before the prisoners were herded to the rear to ‘go in the bag’. The Paras consolidated their positions and started digging in again. Would there be a counter attack. The wounded were tended to, the dead mourned, briefly. There would be time for grieving properly when the fighting was done for good. As with successive generations of British soldiers the world over, they made tea.
Alex sat on the cold hillside, looking towards Stanley. This was the closest they had come to it. It was now almost at spitting distance. How many more would die, on either side, before they reached it? He looked at the others, their faces grey in the equally grey morning light, their eyes sunken in their sockets, like dead men, their faces blackened. He hardly recognised these men, most of whom he knew as well as his own family. Each was lost in contemplation of his own private world, each shrunken by what he had just experienced.
He remained drinking his tea, the liquid warm in his throat and stomach, the first physical feelings he remembered since they had started up the mountain.
“Are you all right, sir?”
Alex returned to the Falklands, from wherever his private thoughts had taken him.
“Me? Yes, I’m all right,” he snapped. “Why?”
The young medical orderly pointed to Alex’s left arm. “Your arm, sir. You’ve been hit.”
Alex looked at his arm and saw that the entire forearm of his jacket was matted with concealed blood.
“Bugger me. I wonder how that happened.”
“I’ll check it, sir.”
Alex flexed his fingers, which all seemed to behave normally. He bent his arm. It worked and there was no pain.
“It’s OK. I’ll live. Go and take care of the others who need you.”
He continued sitting and finished his tea. He looked towards Stanley once again. “I hope you’re worth all this.”
He stood up; there would be things to do. He glanced eastwards towards the brightening sky. Over there somewhere was his home.
“Is that why you did all this, Alex? For England, for home, because you are a soldier of the Queen?”
He answered his own question. “No, mate. You did this because you wanted to do it, you, Alex, bloody, Millar. You, you wanted to do this. You had to do it; you needed to know if you could do it. Is it out of your system now? Have you grown up at last? Do you want to do it again?”
He knew that he did not.
It would be sometime before they learned that Colonel H. Jones of 2 Para, at Goose Green and Sergeant Ian McKay of 3 Para, at Mount Longdon had been awarded posthumous Victoria Crosses.
Not all units of the British forces had gained their objectives, and, as a result, 3 Para remained all day on 12th June on the mountain they had expended so much effort and blood to take. All through that long day Argentine artillery tortured them while the Paras cursed the Royal Marines’ failure to take Tumbledown.
Alex had his arm dressed, a minor shrapnel wound, and refused to go back to San Carlos Bay in one of the many helicopters clattering in behind them to evacuate the wounded to the hospital ship, Uganda.
On the 13th, the Scots Guards fought a bitter engagement on Mount Tumbledown, while their Welsh colleagues and the Gurkhas tackled Mount William and Sapper Hill. The Scots could have lost, but their courage and perseverance prevailed, and suddenly, it was all over. The Argentines had had enough, and were streaming back to Port Stanley
Now 2 Para found themselves only three miles from the town, while 3 Para, still under occasional shelling, received their final briefing for what was, they hoped, to be the last battle. It was all over. It was all over, and 2 Para walked into Port Stanley unopposed, past lines of sullen, confused Argentine soldiers.
On 14th June, General Menendez surrendered all Argentine forces in the Falklands, East and West, and the process of disarming began.
Alex walked into Stanley with the rest of his battalion, dirty, unshaven and smelly. He looked at the little town.
“Jesus, is this what we have been fighting for?”
He knew in his heart that it was not. They had fought for something greater than a small outpost of Empire half a world away, but he had seen too many of his mates die in the last few days to think about principles of freedom and sovereignty. For now, it was enough. He had gone to war, a proper war, and he had not funked it. He could go home to his wife and children, to his own country, and to a new future. He was finished with the Army. Alex Millar, soldier, had run his course.
He did not know, at that time, that it was already too late.
In due course Alex flew out of a repaired Port Stanley airport on a C130 Hercules of the Royal Air force, changed on to a chartered civilian jet at Ascension, and flew into RAF Brize Norton. Kate and Richard were there to greet him, overjoyed at seeing their father come home safe from the war. Anne was nowhere to be seen.
Anne’s silence, broken only occasionally by a monosyllabic grunt, lasted another three months, and even when their life returned to something approaching normality between them, they both knew that their time together was limited. In fact, their shared life staggered on for another six years, with Anne and Alex growing further apart by the year. They became, eventually, two strangers living under the same roof, sharing little in common. They did not sleep together, did not holiday together, and they did not go out together.
His determination to leave the Army, born in the Falklands, remained with him, and it stayed strong despite the news that he would be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. That would have meant a move back to the RMP, but even if he could have stayed in his beloved Parachute Regiment, Alex knew that his time was up. Perhaps had the Falklands War happened before it did, it might have slaked his gnawing thirst for action. It was done now, he had gone to war, and he had come through. Two hundred and fifty seven of his comrades did not. He had proved to himself that he could do it, but along the way he had lost his wife. He rationalised that it would have happened anyway.
It was September when he took off his uniform for the last time, even though he did not become a civilian until December. The Army, as part of its resettlement programme, helped him to secure a place at the University of Surrey, just down the road, to study journalism. He felt strange, accustomed to being in authority, suddenly to be a nobody without power. He enjoyed the release, the feeling of no longer being required to make decisions, and relished being told what to do. It was a challenge, and he enjoyed it. He felt very old, ancient even, among his new, and very young fellow students. He felt so old that he decided to grow a beard. “If they think you are so bloody old, matey, you might just as well look old,” he told himself.
After University, he applied for a number of jobs, and to his surprise, he was successful in his first interview. Alex Millar, Major (Rtd), British Army, became a reporter for the Woking News and Mail. It was unexciting, and consisted of court duty, watching Woking Town F.C. and reporting on cats up trees. At a magistrate’s court committal hearing on a murder indictment, he met Neil Willis, and the two men liked each other at once. Neil was extrovert, loud, drank a lot, and had a low opinion of the military. He was everything that Alex was not, and that may have provided the important chemical link. As their friendship developed, Neil recommended Alex to Reuters, and at his second job interview, Alex Millar was as successful as at his first.
Alex and Anne had given up sleeping together some long time ago, and although she did not want to sleep with her husband, she was still sufficiently jealous to try to stop any other woman doing so. The job with Reuters required him to travel, and this increased Anne’s distrust. After some years, even sharing their lives as strangers under a common roof, became too difficult to sustain. Six years after he had returned from the Falkland Islands, Alex Millar walked out on his wife of thirty years.
Chapter Seventeen – Episode 25